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wine list


Restaurant Wine List Woes: Re-Thinking the Menu…

How would you react if you walked into a restaurant tomorrow and the menu read like this:

Hare & leek, Smith Farm, Little Valley, 2024

You would know that you were being offered a dish of rabbit and leeks. You would know the name of the farm they came from, and where that farm was located – though, this information would hold little relevance to most patrons. And, you would know that the food was fresh.

What you wouldn’t know is anything even vaguely useful in determining whether you would like this dish. What cooking techniques have been used? What seasonings will affect the flavours? How will the food be served?

It would be understandable if you felt a rising sense of irritation while waiting for the server to come over and enlighten you. After all, what is the point of being handed a menu if it doesn’t provide a means of choosing for oneself. Why bother?

Enter the wine list…

The Age-Old Love Affair between Restaurant and Wine

Countless articles, global statistics, and studies all show that wine consumption is in decline, especially among younger people. There are many reasons for this slump: perceived healthier living choices, cost concerns, attractive alternatives in craft beer, ciders, and cocktails, and so on.

To ensure a bright future for our proud, ancient tradition of winemaking, redoubled efforts are required to court new wine enthusiasts and keep those already cuckoo for Cabernet.

Restaurants are the ideal setting for such noble vinous pursuits. People are out enjoying a bit of a treat, trying dishes they wouldn’t cook at home. They are a ready and willing audience. Cue the gleaming stemware, the gentle pop of the cork, and the romantic terroir tales. A delicious wine, that pairs perfectly with the food, can make an evening out.

But how can diners find that special wine? Simple. They just need to either: a) have explicit knowledge of a vast number of regions, sub-regions, wine producers, vintages, and grape varieties, b) randomly choose, then pray that they won’t spend the evening vaguely annoyed to be spending $100 on a wine they dislike, or c) wait for a sommelier, if the restaurant has one, to come and bestow their wisdom.

Were Wine Lists Always this Infuriating… or are they Getting Worse?

It is easy to shrug and say, “twas always thus, and always thus will be.” Wine lists are notorious for being intimidating and opaque. But in my opinion – somebody who spends their days living, breathing, (and drinking) wine – the problem is only getting worse.

I used to love studying restaurant wine lists. I could spend ages looking for bargains, seeking out regions I hadn’t tasted in a while, trying to spot older vintages that might be hitting their stride. Now, I spend that same amount of time desperately looking for a single recognizable feature that will help narrow down my options.

As I wrote in a frustrated rant on cryptic wine lists a couple of years ago:

“Ordering wine in a restaurant has become an experience fraught with potential disappointment. Not only are obscure sub-regions, or worse, vast generic appellations often given as the only indication of a wine’s origin, but even if the list offers greater detail, there is no guarantee that the wine in question will taste anything like what is (or once was) typical for said place”.

The wine-producing world is expanding, and it is up to me to expand my frame of references, sure. But if I feel this way as a wine professional, I can only imagine how daunting the restaurant wine list must be for the average wine drinker.

It is of little use for such customers to look for winery names they may be familiar with from wine shops or glossy magazines. Restaurants want to offer original choices; wines that aren’t seen on the high street. They also don’t want their patrons to compare prices.

I understand and applaud a restaurant’s desire to step away from the mainstream when crafting a wine list. Give people an experience. Broaden their horizons to include up-and-coming new wine producers, interesting wine regions, under-the-radar grapes…but do it in a way that rouses curiosity and gets people excited.

And, as a side note, offer some stylistic diversity. A whole list of high acid, lean, funky, savoury edged, dry wines is a bit dull no matter how many countries and producers they come from.

Describing Wines like Food

Food menus explain their dishes. They tell us that the rabbit was braised, and that it will be served in a rich gravy, with a side of poached leeks. These details allow us to imagine how the dish will taste. Why not convey the flavour profile of a wine in a similar way?

Riesling, Cave Spring, VQA Niagara Peninsula, 2021 (Canada): A light bodied, refreshing, lower alcohol (11%) white wine with vivid notes of citrus, apricot, and wet stone. Unoaked, with high, tangy acidity balanced by a subtle touch of fruity sweetness.

A description like this isn’t just a laundry list of aromas, as I have seen countless times. It gives the reader key information about the wine’s structure: that the wine is light, low in alcohol, high in acidity, unoaked, and subtly off dry. These are all elements that are essential to successful food pairing.

Of course, wine lists of this sort already exist. This is not a novel concept that I am proposing. However, their language is often overly obscure – more concerned with clever word play, or romanticizing terroir. Or they give way too much information. My example might lack a bit of poetry or wit, but at least it is clear.

Descriptive wine lists are also quite rare, perhaps because of the work involved. Presumably, though, a wine list author has tasted all their selections. Providing descriptions shouldn’t be all that difficult then – at least for a subset of by-the-glass offerings and by-the-bottle focus wines.

Why not just let sommeliers give these descriptions table-side? Because many restaurants don’t have a sommelier, or not one that works every night. Because many people don’t want to interrupt their dinner conversation to have a lengthy chat about the wine selection. And others don’t want to bother a busy sommelier for too long.

By giving restaurant patrons the ability to easily narrow down their options, the sommelier can then come along for a brief and pleasant chat, weighing in on the final wine choice and providing additional insights to ramp up their guests’ enthusiasm.

50 Ways to Liven up a Restaurant Wine List

Maybe descriptions aren’t the way to go for some restaurants. Perhaps all that is needed is a simple line of text that recommends the best food pairing for each wine. Or a brief, “drinks like…” comment to indicate other, similar wine styles.

There are so many ways to create a more exciting restaurant wine list. Just look at the entertaining and information-packed menus curated by Paul Grieco’s staff at the Terroir wine bars in New York. They may be a little more than a novice wine drinker can handle…but they definitely make you want to pull up a glass.



Understanding the wine list

Understanding the wine list, or even a sommelier’s spiel about a restaurant’s offerings, has long driven fear into the hearts of diners.

Wine is a complex subject that has impressed and intimidated its drinkers since time immemorial. The number of variables to comprehend is overwhelming: wine producer, vineyard region, grape variety, vintage, etc. Despite endless recent industry calls to simplify wine messaging, I would argue that understanding the wine list is no simpler a task.

The quantity of winemaking areas and grapes being cultivated has grown exponentially. Regions that previously exported very little are making waves internationally. Winemaking styles have evolved. Experimentation is rife. It is an exciting time in the world of wine, but it is also a confusing one.

Paradoxically, wine list entries seem to be getting shorter in many a trendy wine-focused bar/bistro/restaurant. At a glance, this might seem like a more approachable technique. However, I wonder if it isn’t actually just the opposite?

The other day, I went out for a drink with some friends who enjoy wine, but don’t profess to know much about it.  They scanned the by-the-glass wines, shrugged and ordered cocktails. Why? Because how on earth is the average wine drinker supposed to know what this means?

VDF, cuvée name, Domaine XYZ, 2019

Even an aficionado, unless they happen to be familiar with the particular estate and wine, isn’t going to understand more than that this is a Vin de France from the 2019 vintage.  The wine list author might just as well have written French wine and left it at that.

Not wanting to be rude and spend ten minutes looking up wine details on my phone, I decided to let the sommelier guide me. After all, with a wine list so opaque, you have to assume that this is what the establishment wants you to do.

My plan backfired. With a line up of patrons eager to enjoy the socially distanced terrace, our waiter was in no mood to expound on each wine list entry. I broadly explained wine styles I like (and don’t), he insisted that only one red from their list would meet my needs.

He poured the wine. It was dull with a hollow mid-palate and an artificial caramel flavour on the finish. I sighed but, unwilling to bore my friends further, accepted the drink.

I cannot count the amount of times that I have been faced with situations similar to this in recent times. For me, ordering wine in a restaurant has become an experience fraught with potential disappointment. Not only are obscure sub-regions, or worse, vast generic appellations often given as the only indication of a wine’s origin, but even if the list offers greater detail, there is no guarantee that the wine in question will taste anything like what is (or once was) typical for said place.

It is not that I believe that wine regions and styles should remain static. It is only natural that what is typical from a wine region in 2021 is not necessarily what was so in 1990, or 1950. It is also exciting to taste wines from an estate pushing the boundaries of their region’s most recent iteration of typicity. But, it can also be incredibly frustrating if you were expecting a certain flavour profile and received something very different.

This is what I find so curious about wine service in so many places today. If a restaurant served a spiced, savoury take on a classic chocolate cake, they would never just write chocolate cake on the menu and fail to inform customers of the flavour twist. And yet, no such compunction exists with regards to wine lists.

I ordered a Faugères from a chalkboard list a while back. I chose it expecting a ripe, rich, velvety wine. I received a thin, acidic, faintly sour red. When I expressed my displeasure, the waiter protested that the wine was from a revered, up-and-coming estate, and perhaps I hadn’t understood the style? Maybe I would have liked the wine if I had known what to expect, or maybe I would not have ordered it, being a pretty anemic choice to pair with steak.

I will say it again. Wine is complex. And complex subjects require explanation.

Perhaps a laundry list of country, region, regional hierarchy, lieu-dit, grape, and vintage doesn’t make understanding the wine list any easier. At the very least though, it provides many points of access for consumers to begin to explore wine’s nuances. A cryptic, short form wine list speaks only to the initiated, excluding all others.

A simple list may work in an establishment where knowledgeable waitstaff are readily available to carefully explains, in layman’s terms, how a wine will taste (being honest about facets of a wine that customers might not be familiar with, or like, such as a tannic white wine or a red wine heady with volatile acidity). How many such places really exist though? And how many customers feel confident that they can accurately explain what they want in a wine?

I would love to see more descriptive wine lists, where the wine style is clearly stated and the words a good sommelier might use to convey flavours are clearly written out, painting an olfactive picture for consumers. Perhaps in this scenario, we could draw more people towards the wine list and away from the cocktail menu.

End of rant.